Look it up! But first understand the purpose of dictionaries.

A dictionary in every room. That was an essential feature of our home when I was growing up.

That way, when a question came up in conversation, no matter which room we were in, we could always look up a word right away if we needed to determine its meaning, its spelling, its pronunciation, or its etymology. Now, of course, the smartphone we all carry can fulfill all those functions.

So (almost) everyone can look things up now.

But I wish everyone understood the purpose of dictionaries! A great (and short!) article by Jonathon Owen illuminates the problem. He points out the two errors that are commonly made:

It’s a phenomenon as predictable as the tides: a dictionary adds new words or definitions, and then people grouse about those changes, either because they don’t like the new words and think that the dictionary is declaring them acceptable, or because they personally have never heard of those words before and therefore don’t see why they should be included. They often blend in grumpiness about the language supposedly declining or about kids these days. In both cases, of course, the real problem is that readers just don’t understand how dictionaries work.

The first error, not liking new words, is committed by peevers all the time, and it’s hard to know how to respond. Usually I just point out that dictionaries are history books, not etiquette books. But sometimes I just want to tell them to relax, that languages change, and you can either accept reality or hit your head against the wall.

The second error, objecting to words one has never heard of, is more concerning. Why do people do that??? As Owen puts it, “A dictionary that contained only the words you already know wouldn’t be a very useful dictionary, would it?” Well, it can still be useful for pronunciation or etymology, but I take his point: just because you haven’t heard of a word doesn’t mean that it isn’t real!

Some people need to pull their heads out of the sand and learn something new.

Categories: Linguistics, Teaching & Learning